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Why I Hate Fake Pirates

Little piratical activity

My issue with pirates is partly personal. I have wasted too much of my brief life debating whether pirates roamed these shores. I’m sure they passed by en route from Canada to Boston in the early 18th century. But “these shores” from a New Hampshire perspective measure a mere 17 or 18 miles. Around here pirates are a footnote at best. Yet they seem to be multiplying, not only on Halloween, but at summer festivals and tall ship visits.

Fake_Blackbeard at Isles of Shoals (c) J. Dennis RobinsonI spent a very long unpaid day with a film crew from the History Channel searching for Blackbeard’s treasure on Lunging Island at the Isles of Shoals. I watched actors in theatrical costumes prance around the island with plastic guns and swords and plastic gold doubloons. I explained on-camera that there is no historical evidence that Edward Teach ever set foot here, or abandoned his 14th wife here, or was stupid enough to bury his treasure among the poor island citizens of Gosport. My interview never made it into the final cut.

Maritime historian Jeremy D’Entremont agrees, and he should know. Jeremy edited the works of New England author Edward Rowe Snow, including his book Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast. Much of local pirate lore, Jeremy notes in his introduction to Snow, comes from a 1724 book by an author whose life is largely unknown, so even the bible of the best-documented pirate tales is comprised of shaky facts.

“Like you,” Jeremy told me, “I believe there was very little piratical activity in this neck of the woods…I've also seen no evidence that Blackbeard or any of his crew spent time in the Isles, legends to the contrary.”

In his book Ocean-Born Mary: The Truth behind a New Hampshire Legend. Jeremy separates fact from fiction. One legend notes that the pirate who spared the life of his prisoners, including a newborn Mary, was Phillip Babb, the bloody butcher of the Isles of Shoals. That story is pure fluff. Jeremy notes that it was popularized by the 20th century author Lois Lenski in her imaginary story of the life of Mary Wallace. I can tell you for certain that Lenski got some of her research from Portsmouth historian Dorothy Vaughan. I’ve seen their correspondence in the archives of the NH Historical Society. Dorothy got her info largely from Shoals’ poet Celia Thaxter, who played fast and loose with the facts and had a personal interest in spiritualism and the occult.


Celia appears to have exaggerated her story of “Bloody Babb the Butcher” from her father Thomas Laighton, who built his Appledore Hotel on top of an ancient grave site in 1847. Thomas joked to his children that he might have disturbed the bones of Phillip Babb who was an actual butcher and a constable at the Shoals in the 17th century. The ghost stories that Thomas Laighton told his children still reverberate today in false history and pirate tales.

Jeremy suggests that the real captain in the Ocean-Born Mary story was Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful pirate of them all, and that the attack took place off Newfoundland. Roberts was sometimes kind to his victims. Tall, stout, and swarthy, he preferred drinking tea over wine and dressed like a gentleman.

“But Roberts certainly wasn’t averse to violence,” Jeremy writes in his book. He also murdered and tortured people, Jeremy notes. Roberts, who sailed under the Jolly Roger, may have torched a ship with 80 slaves aboard. Pirates were rarely, if ever, the swashbuckling, romantic, anti-heroes of popular fiction. Pirates were, like their modern counterparts off the African coast, merely murderers and thieves with boats.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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